The Red and the Green II: Judgment at København

There seems to be a general sentiment among those segments of the global population committed to the preservation and survival of the environment we live in that the coming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in København, to be held between 7 and 18 December 2009, will be decisive. At this conference it will have to be decided whether the political leaders of the world are capable of undertaking serious and coordinated efforts to combat the environmental impact of capitalist industrialization, or whether they will by force of competition on the political and economic planes once again let down the needs and aspirations of the world’s population, human and nonhuman. The Kyoto Protocol, a moderate and very tempered attempt to bind the leading industrial and industrializing nations to a reduction in the output of greenhouse gases, has failed as the United States refuses to in any way curb its potential capital accumulation, even if this is for the benefit of the survival of the planet as we know it. At the same time, there is much acrimony between major industrializing states such as India and China and the Western nations, where the latter want the former to bear much of the burden of their polluting industrial output, whereas the former quite rightly point out that the Western nations never cared about it during their phase of Industrial Revolution and that they have consciously exported much of their own industry to those nations in the first place. Not only is the Third World now exploited by the First, it is also being made to pay for the privilege in ecological terms.

In the meantime, the international scientific collective, in the form of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has set much higher targets as being necessary if destructive global warming of at least two degrees Celcius on average is to be avoided. Industrialized nations need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80-95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, in order to provide a “reasonable chance” of averting warming beyond two degrees Celcius above pre-industrial temperature that would have significant risks of severe and irreversible impacts on human and ecological systems.(1) Already, the consequences are quite dire, particularly for the underdeveloped countries. Nations on floodplains or low levels such as Bangladesh are likely to face catastrophic floodings, beyond anything seen in the tsunami of 2004 that killed 200.000 people, as polar ice melts and water levels rise. Similar problems appear in mountainous regions such as Nepal, where the revolutionary government staged a cabinet meeting at the highest altitude ever recorded (5.250m) to emphasize the dangers of glacier melting for that country.(2) Rising sea temperatures and stronger El Niño effects will destroy the coral reefs and threaten fundamentally the populations of Polynesian archipelagos, such as Tuvalu. A warmer planet strongly threatens the biodiversity of our shared world as well, killing everything from Alpine flowers to Amazon toad species and butterflies.

The cause of all this is irrevocably man-made, a viewpoint shared strongly by the scientific communis opinio, but also confirmed by the everyday common sense that the limitless self-expanding accumulation of capital at the expense of our metabolic interaction with living nature cannot go on forever. It must have destructive consequences in its rapacious greed in nature as it does in society, and it has now been shown to be so. Already the murderous effects on human beings of air and water pollution, of smoke and lack of sunlight, of the subsumption of all human vital powers to the machinery of capital were observed and analyzed in the 19th Century. Now it is ever more strongly becoming clear that not just homo sapiens sapiens, but also all other species on our vulnerable planet are trampled underfoot as capital moves globally and “creates the world in its own image”. The specific form this takes in the 20th and especially 21st Century is the thirst for oil, which is the lifeblood of capital and all its productive powers, more precious than the real blood of the millions it destroys yearly. What coal was for the 19th Century, its vital power and cancer alike, oil is today. The search for oil has brought hitherto unknown energy and productivity to some of the most barren and remote regions of the world, such as the Arab sands and the remote wastes of Canada. But at the same time it has ruthlessly destroyed the natural environment of any place it is found, it has caused whole peoples to be thrown aside and made to fight each other to obtain but a fragment of the natural wealth they own, it has poisoned the ground and the air, the oceans and the snows to a degree never before seen, in order that ever more and ever faster our capitalist societies may expand. Few things so clearly indicate the interconnectedness of capitalism’s social contradictions and its natural contradictions as the worldwide addiction to the black gold.

Similarly, deforestation is a major issue that will have to be considered during the Climate Change Conference. Already very little of the natural rainforest of Borneo remains, because palm oil production has destroyed within one generation what countless generations beyond remembrance have taken for a monument of nature. The Amazon rainforest also, the lungs of the world, are even now being reduced by a segment as large as the American state of Delaware each year, and this even constitutes a historical low because Brazil’s government has taken great pains to protect it at any cost. But here the question is again one of both the main contradictions of capital at once: the deforestation is the result of the landlessness of many farmers in Brazil and Indonesia and the relative profitability of production of beef, palm oil and tropic wood for export, rather than a sustainable production in healthy interaction with nature for local needs. Indeed the Brazilian government has quite rightly pointed out that if the Western peoples attach such value to the Amazon rainforest, then they should pay the cost of their demands on the same Brazilian peoples on whose cheap production they count: let them put their money where their mouth is, and compensate the Brazilian poor for the destruction of our common environment they have forced them into. However, this too should apply to the landlord class in countries like Brazil and Indonesia. Neither of them have had significant land reform to take the pressure off the small peasantry and landless rural labor, and at the same time they lack the industrialization that would make proletarians out of peasants and so solve the contradiction. A similar reasoning in any case would apply to the industrialization efforts of nations such as China and India, since they have no choice but to submit their own natural resources to the fullest possible exploitation by capital if they are not given (and do not wish to take) the opportunity to choose a sustainable path of production for needs instead, the path of socialism. Capital must pay its bills, and either this will be in the shape of a massive redistribution of value from the industrialized nations to the Third World, or Gaia will pick up the bill herself, and then the consequences will be dire when she adjusts her balance accordingly.

It is clear then that the solution cannot be one that simply keeps capital accumulation in place, but in some other form. The mirage of ‘cap-and-trade’ schemes must be avoided. The illusion here is that market capitalism will solve the problem when given the right incentives to do so, when those incentives were absent in the first place because of the nature of capital as such. Paying capital to not expand, which the cap-and-trade idea basically entails, will lead to nothing but swindle and accounting fraud while it will prove practically impossible to set the hard limits low enough to make any effective impact on global warming. After all, if such limits could coexist with current rates of profit, why wouldn’t the ‘philantropist’ capitalists, from Bill Gates to Ratan Tata, seize the opportunity to show their good will? No, it is evident that it is not any specific malfunction of capital accumulation, nor any particular form it has contingently taken in recent times, but the very laws of motion of such accumulation themselves that are to blame for the current ecological crisis. The choice at København is exceedingly clear: either we all throw ourselves before the deadly Juggernaut of capital, and let it steer its own course at the expense of our planet, or we call a halt to this vehicle of destruction once and for all.

1) Rie Jerichow, “The rich-poor rift widens only days before the Copenhagen meeting”.
2) Marianne Bom, “Cabinet meeting at Mt. Everest”. Associated Press (Dec. 04, 2009).


“Paying capital to not expand, which the cap-and-trade idea basically entails”

Cap-and-trade with a permit auction (like Obama supports) does not “pay” capital not to expand, it forces a price on GHG emissions that would otherwise not exist and is the equivalent of a carbon tax.

It seems to me that the problem of hard caps, which you call an impossibility, is more associated with the basic collective action problem and the problems associated with externalities due to a lack of global democracy. Developed countries and their people have a lot to lose from radical emissions reductions and have much more capacity to adapt while discounting the future while most of the benefits from change would be felt in the developing world.

I mean imagine what a 50% reduction in emissions in ten years in the US (which is a 40% reduction below 1990 levels) would take in terms of changes in economic structure. That’s the equivalent of ending all present consumption of fossil fuels for transportation of persons or goods and then making a 25% cut in all other sources of GHG emissions. 92% of Americans live in households with access to a private car and 9 of 10 trips are made by car, imagine the scale of change required to invert that. The idea that policy-makers would just engineer a short-term economic collapse and lifestyle revolution in order to meet global objectives for undetermined possible benefits forty years from now to other countries seems unlikely regardless of what economic system they adhere to.

I know you are aware of the environmental destruction associated with planned economies in the Soviet Union and China, which I guess you would say were still capitalist and driven by accumulation due to various historical pressures, but such facts don’t speak well to the idea that simply shifting towards a different economic system would provide the basis for environmental protection. The idea that you could build a consensus for some sort of green global communism but that taking existing market economies and making them more efficient in internalizing costs would be impossible just seems implausible.

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